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Fort Drum Creates Police Academy So MPs Can Fight Wars, Not Crime

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WILLIAM KATES
Associated Press

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (AP) -- The Army is freeing up its military police to fight the war on terrorism by turning over more of the crime-fighting on its installations to Department of Army civilian police.

At Fort Drum, the 10th Mountain Division has started its own police academy to better prepare those civilian policemen, and equip them for the nuances that come along with battling crime on a military post.

"My officers can be dedicated to law enforcement only,'' said Joseph Margrey, Fort Drum's police chief. "The MP will always be distracted by his first responsibility as a warfighter.''

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Gerald Healy said the Army has had to rely on its military police to play a growing role in Iraq as the war has escalated, not only as security forces but as combat troops. As a result, some Army installations in the states have added National Guardsmen or Department of Army police to augment their MP corps, while turning over gate security to private contractors.

At other Army posts, though, civilian police forces often consist of veteran and retired police who may receive two or three weeks of basic refresher training.

At Fort Drum, the academy runs 13 weeks, providing instruction on every aspect of police work, from taking witness statements to giving a breathalyzer test to a drunk motorist to taking fingerprints at a burglary scene, said Gregory Ferguson, who heads Fort Drum's directorate of emergency services. Cadets review state and federal criminal law as well as military codes.

The instruction - provided by investigators and beat cops from local departments as well as Army officers - runs five days a week and includes field training.

"I've had to study hard. It's been demanding,'' said Shawn Ryan, 27, who currently works part time as a policeman in two Jefferson County villages. "You have to know criminal law and you have to know the military code. You have to know which laws apply when and in what situations.''

When they graduate, cadets have received 520 hours of instruction, about half of what New York State troopers receive during six months of academy training. Modeled on state and county police academies, much of the training is transferrable should a cadet pursue law enforcement work elsewhere in New York.

In an environment where discipline and following orders are the norm, it may seem a police force would be unnecessary. Not so.

"On any given day, there are roughly 35,000 soldiers, workers and visitors using the installation,'' Ferguson said. "We are just like a city. We have the same type of crimes.''

The post has had only two murders since the division was reactivated in 1985, but it regularly experiences burglaries, domestic disputes, drugs, drunk drivers, fist fights and occasionally more serious crimes, such as rape and child abuse. In 2003, Fort Drum authorities handled 22,000 calls.

"The academy prepared us well,'' said Kevin Mower, 28, of Binghamton, who was among the academy's first graduates and now works road patrol. "Everything we've encountered out here so far, we went over in class.

"I didn't have the extensive law enforcement background as some of the others,'' said Mower, who spent seven years in the Marines as a helicopter mechanic. "For me, it was a real immersion.''

Fort Drum presently employs 53 DA police, including Mower and 28 other officers who graduated in the first academy class in May. Margrey plans to have more than 100 DA officers on his force. When possible, civilian police are always partnered with an MP.

The second class, consisting of 40 cadets, got started in August, delayed because of a temporary Army-wide hiring freeze. The class, which is diverse in age, ethnicity and experience - from fresh-out-of-college recruits looking for their first job to a retired county sheriff's investigator - is scheduled to graduate Nov. 5.

The average age of the cadets is 32.

The Fort Drum police force is patterned like most municipal forces. Margrey's department has traffic cops, detectives, its own SWAT-style team and a canine unit.

"Sometimes there's a perception that they are rent-a-cops or something,'' Ferguson said. "They are a professional police force.''

MPs - who know military code but are less familiar in state and federal criminal law - come and go as units are deployed and reassigned. They rarely have time to learn the sprawling 167-square-mile post, which has thousands of buildings. The DA police will stay and develop an intimate knowledge of the post, so when a call comes in they will know instantly where they are going and not have to find it out on a map.

With the DA police on patrol, response time on emergency calls already has dropped by two minutes, Ferguson said. "That may not sound like a lot. But to the person being mugged or raped, it can be vital.''
 
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